Throughout the story, Twain emphasizes the dichotomy between masculine and feminine space. Importantly, he wrote in the nineteenth century, when the notion of gendered space for men and women created an ideology of “separate spheres.” Men dominated outside the home in the harsh, competitive public sphere of work, politics, and violence. Women, by contrast, tended to the domestic sphere of household management, child-rearing, and moral guidance. Under the control of a nurturing female presence, the home served as a refuge from the harsh male realm. In “The Californian’s Tale,” Twain characterizes the public sphere—that of gold prospecting and community—as decayed, abandoned, isolated, depressed, and poverty-ridden. The people who remain on the Stanislaus are men, and, not coincidentally, the same grim characteristics that define their space define their minds and bodies. In contrast to the male-dominated outside world, the story’s only female space (Henry’s cottage, once tended by his wife) is one of beauty, elegance, color, happiness, softness, and nurturement. The male-dominated space of territorial conquest and capitalist expansion has brought utter ruin. The female space of the home offers the only reprieve from life on the Stanislaus. Twain, however, is too adroit a thinker that the female realm is superior to that of men. Instead, he indicates the contributions both spaces make to create healthy environments for men and women.
Twain begins the story by comparing the cabins built by men to cottages tended to by women. Thought the latter are now abandoned, they are nonetheless the “prettiest little cottage homes” that are “snug and cozy.” In contrast to the pretty cottages, the miners’ log cabins are “solitary” spaces that lack a welcoming female touch. Henry’s cottage, for example, looks “lived in and petted for and cared for” on the outside, while the inside is “a nest which had aspects to rest the tired eye” and find “nourishment.” A miner’s cabin, by comparison, is a space of “hard cheerless, materialistic desolation” that implies “a dirt floor, never-made beds, tin plates and cups, bacon and beans, and black coffee.” Cottages under women’s control are ornate, welcoming retreats from the outside sphere of male activity, whereas miners’ cabins are mere extensions of that very sphere. As functional spaces to get food and shelter, miners’ cabins exist to further the work of prospecting and wealth accumulation, not as spaces to escape from that work.
The ornate decoration inside of Henry’s cottage further attests to the clear separation between male and female space in the story. Twain emphasizes that a woman’s touch alone can transform a dwelling into a comforting retreat. It is not that men are unwilling to create attender home environment, rather, they are in incapable of doing so. The narrator attest to this fact shortly after he enters Henry’s cottage. He marvels at the ornamentation—colorful wallpapers, tidies and lamp mats, framed pictures, seashells, etc. These constitute “the score of little unclassifiable tricks and touches that a woman’s hand distributes about a home,” and which a man can “see without knowing he sees them,” but “would miss in a moment if they were taken away.” Henry tells the narrator that the beautiful decoration in his home is “All her work.” Men are lucky enough to appreciate these hallmarks of feminine space, if not create them for themselves. “You can’t tell just what it lacks,” Henry says, “you can see it yourself after it’s done, but that is all you know; you can’t find out the law of it.” The “law” to which Henry refers is the power a woman holds over her domestic space. This feeling of comfort in a home is what the men on the Stanislaus miss, but cannot hope to replicate themselves. As Henry quips, “she knows the why and the how,” but “men only know the how.”
The sharp contrast between male and female spaces in “The Californian’s Tale” underscores how the two environments complement each other. The removal of the feminine space from the male prospectors’ lives has profoundly negative implications for the way they experience their daily lives. Left without women in a world of work and business, the miners have no retreat from the harshness of their own existence. The closest thing that he prospectors have to a feminine space is Henry’s cottage, a home decorated by a woman who has been absent for nineteen years. Henry can only upkeep, not improve upon, this space. The combination of Manifest Destiny’s carnage and the loss of reciprocal balance between male and female spheres creates the conditions by which the story’s third theme, madness, flourishes.
Masculine vs. Feminine Space ThemeTracker
Masculine vs. Feminine Space Quotes in The Californian’s Tale
In the country neighborhood thereabouts, along the dusty roads, one found at intervals the prettiest little cottage homes, snug and cozy, and so cobwebbed with vines snowed thick with roses that the doors and windows were wholly hidden from sight.
Round about California in that day were scattered a host of these living dead men—pride-smitten poor fellows, grizzled and old at forty, whose secret thoughts were made all of regrets and longings.
That was all hard, cheerless, materialistic desolation, but here was a nest which had aspects to rest the tired eye.
“I've seen her fix all these things so much that I can do them all just her way, though I don't know the law of any of them. But she knows the law. She knows the why and the how both; but I don't know the why; I only know the how.”
I was feeling a deep, strong longing to see her—a longing so supplicating, so insistent, that it made me afraid.
[A] loving, sedate, and altogether charming and gracious piece of handiwork, with a postscript full of affectionate regards and messages to Tom, and Joe, and Charley.
Charley fetched out one hearty speech after another, and did his best to drive away his friend's bodings and apprehensions.
Joe brought the glasses on a waiter, and served the party. I reached for one of the two remaining glasses, but Joe growled, under his breath: "Drop that! Take the other." Which I did. Henry was served last.
Never has been sane an hour since. But he only gets bad when that time of the year comes round. Then we begin to drop in here, three days before she's due, to encourage him up.